Reading Nietzsche: Enough With Plato Already

“For heaven’s sake, do not throw Plato at me,” Nietzsche wrote in Twighlight of the Idols, in what I have found to be one of the best sources of background information on the development of his thought: a section called What I Owe to the Ancients. After extolling the early Greeks and explaining that 19th-Century (and indeed, contemporary) thinkers could not understand them without the intermediary Romans (“Who could ever have learned to write from a Greek? Who could ever have learned it without the Romans?”), Nietzsche lays seige to one of the longest-standing intellectual castles: Plato’s The Republic:

I am complete skeptic about Plato, and I have never been able to join in the admiration for the artist Plato which is customary among scholars. In the end, the subtlest judges of taste among the ancients themselves are here on my side. Plato, it seems to me, throws all stylistic forms together and is thus a first-rate decadent in style: his responsibility in thus comparable to that of the Cynics, who invented the satura Menippea. To be attracted by the Platonic dialogue, this horribly self-satisfied and childish kind of dialectic, one must never have read good French writers—Fontenelle, for example. Plato is boring.

In the end, my mistrust of Plato goes deep: he represents such an aberration from all the basic instincts of the Hellene, is so moralistic, so pre-existently Christian—he already takes the concept “good” for the highest concept—that for the whole phenomenon Plato I would sooner use the harsh phrase “higher swindle,” or, if it sounds better, “idealism,” than any other.

Not surprisingly, I for one tend to agree. In fact, I wrote a paper in my favorite political philosophy class in college about Plato/Socrates losing the argument presented in the book, which I somehow later adapted into a totally different paper about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (the hallmark of such a “well-rounded” humanities education at a small liberal arts school, right?).

The character of Thrasymachus in The Republic, Plato’s scowling straw-man, is of particular importance, and is worth looking up—as much as it’s worth re-reading Republic with him as the unlikely protagonist. He argues the nihilist viewpoint quite well, despite Plato’s linguistic tricks and the fact that he is the one telling the story. And while at first it might seem that he’s attempting to justify any action whatsoever, as long as its made in the pursuit of strength, what he’s really doing is challenging the premise that there is an ideal human—or ideal human-made worldview—in the first place.

Here is where Nietzsche also has a problem, writing in the aforementioned section: “In that great calamity, Christianity, Plato represents the ambiguity and fascination, called an ‘ideal,’ which made it possible for the nobler spirits of antiquity to misunderstand themselves and to set foot on the bridge leading to the cross.”

But before digging even that deep, I think one could find fault with The Republic‘s justification of, if not call for, a rigid caste system enforced by an arbitrary and lopsided hierarchy, as if “king” and “justice” could be uttered in the same breath coherently. That, by the way, is my same critique of Bob Marley, which I’ve detailed here.

And yet, every philosophy student will still read The Republic and most likely come away with the exact opposite response that should be expected of a truly critical thinker: namely, that someone can will something into existence simply by asserting it, and that the burden of proof is then on the listener of such an assertion and not on its author. Plato insists that there must be this thing that is an essence of intrinsic goodness, and then hears compelling evidence to the contrary (most notably by our friend Thrasymachus), and then continues to insist on his original assertion unmodified—and then, further, builds a whole undemocratic militarized State with said assertion as the foundation. Pretty boring, eh?


A poem by Louise Glück:

You have only to wait, they will find you.
The geese flying low over the marsh,
glittering in black water.
They find you.

And the deer–
how beautiful they are,
as though their bodies did not impede them.
Slowly they drift into the open
through bronze panels of sunlight.

Why would they stand so still
if they were not waiting?
Almost motionless, until their cages rust,
the shrubs shiver in the wind,
squat and leafless.

You have only to let it happen:
that cry — release, release — like the moon
wrenched out of the earth and rising
full in its circle of arrows

until they come before you
like dead things, saddled with flesh,
and you above them, wounded and dominant.

Here’s some commentary on the poem, and a brief bio of the poet.

This poem reminds me of a previous one I posted, called “The Animals,” which ends with a call, “Will any come back will one / Saying yes / Saying look carefully yes / We will meet again.” The opening line of this one, “You only have to wait, they will find you.” is almost a continuation of the previous one, in the same way that “Fourth Time Around” is a continuation of “Norweigan Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”  Glück answers the question: you don’t have to follow them, just wait and they will find you—as if to say: you can’t evade them even if you wanted to; the material world is still (and will always be) the limit.

The last stanza alludes to the impending crash, if not to the on-going and ever-intensifying disappointment created by modern humans’ interaction with nature: we stand above the organisims, but only in our own minds, as they appear “like dead things” and we dominate, yes, but by doing so are also “wounded” in the process. The endgame of such a domination will not be pretty.

The first stanza, which uses the image of geese flying over water, reminds me of “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves” by James Kavanaugh. In the dedication to his book of poems, Kavanaugh wrote:

    A cat named Ralph who makes me laugh
          and feel loved
    And a tired old man who makes me cry
          and feel helpless.    But especially to those

       Who can hear the honking of geese
                above the sound of traffic
       Who can hear the weeping of boys
                above the sound of mortars
       Who refuse to take life as it is—
                because it wasn’t always

who look close enough to see
the hurt hidden in anger,
the fear disguised in arrogance,
the eloquence locked in silence beyond all words,
To those who love the faces in the city.

Reading Nietzsche: On the Writing Process

Due to his deteriorating mental condition near the end of his life, Nietzsche never did what a lot of writers do in their twilight: offer insight into their writing process and thoughts on their own work. That is, I thought Nietzsche never did that, until I read this passage from Beyond Good and Evil:

Alas, and yet what are you, my written and painted thoughts! It is not long ago that you were still so many-coloured, young and malicious, so full of thorns and hidden spices you made me sneeze and laugh—and now? You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring! And has it ever been otherwise? For what things do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brushes, we immortalizers of things which let themselves be written, what alone are we capable of painting? Alas, only that which is about to wither and is beginning to lose its fragrance! Alas, only storms departing exhausted and feelings grown old and yellow! Alas, only birds strayed and grown—in our hand! We immortalize that which cannot live and fly much longer, weary and mellow things alone! And it is only your afternoon, my written and painted thoughts, for which alone I have the colours, many colours perhaps, many many-couloured tendernesses and fifty yellows and browns and greens and reds: —but no one will divine from these how you looked in your morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude, you my old beloved—wicked thoughts!

While, in his usual fashion, Nietzsche relishes in linguistic acrobatics in lieu of straightforwardness, even when supposedly offering some kind of introspective illumination, he still manages with this passage to give us a look into the writer’s mind, if only briefly. And he does so in a strange way: by writing a letter to his own words, as if once on the page, they not only existed outside of his mind but could change on their own, and could, presumably, communicate ideas not entirely Nietzsche’s (how prophetic!).

I must admit, it’s downright comforting to realize that even Nietzsche, who could write about paint drying and make it interesting (if not controversial), bemoaned the challenge of putting thoughts to paper while keeping their initial dynamism. Even Nietzsche apparently found it hard at times to translate the flickerings of brilliance that we all experience—either while drifting off to sleep or while pausing to look out the window during work, or while driving down an almost abandoned street in the middle of a stark night—into a coherent, let alone captivating, text.

Nietzsche also must’ve been frustrated by that all-too-human process of self-editing, whereby we always ask ourselves what so-and-so would say (for me it’s my 10th-grade English teacher), whether the thing we’re writing is any good at all, or if that em dash should really be a colon or vice versa. It’s always a good idea to read your own writing, but this net that we cast can also sometimes catch some flashes of beauty, truth, or real meaning, and perhaps there might be something lost in the process. Even before we get to the computer or find some paper to write on, the initial thought we had is turned over in our minds: is shaped, refined, and constrained.

Of course, this passage only makes me more intrigued about what Nietzsche didn’t write, or edited out, considering what eventually did end up on the page set the bar for all philosophy (in the West, at least) ever since. Luckily, there’s stoo so much of his writing which I haven’t read yet, so it’s back to the book! …

We’d Like to Thank Our Corporate Sponsors



noun, plural ol·i·gar·chies.

1. a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.
2. a state or organization so ruled.
3. the persons or class so ruling.
Now that you’re familiar with ALEC (and if you’re not, read this), you might be curious as to its corporate members. When organizing to change legislation, to influence policy decisions, or even simply to build cadre, it’s important to be specific. Yes, ALEC is a giant octopus that we may never have comprehensive knowledge of, some things can be deduced by simple internet searches. A trip to the library also awaits. In the meantime, here are some sources for lists of corporate members of ALEC, just to get started:
Granted, the full list of current corporate members is unknown (listing them would violate their Constitutional rights of speech and free association, say Conservatives*), but we can assume with some degree of certainty that any openly Right-wing company is in some way involved. Cracker Barrel, for example, is included in the first list linked above. They are also included in Alternet’s short list of 5 food companies run by radical right-wingers. No surprise there.


And then, of course, there are a bunch of oil companies and banks, who we know run everything in this country anyway, ALEC or no ALEC. But ALEC is of particular importance because they draft the bills like the one passed by the Texas legislature this summer. As we continue building a feminist movement, we might want to entertain the time-honored tradition of hitting people in the pocket book. Could calling out, boycotting, or pressuring corporate members of ALEC be a viable strategy as we move forward?
* Linda Upmeyer asks in the Chicago Tribune: “Are we upholding the ideals of the Constitution if we tolerate the liberal senator using his position to stifle the speech of a free-market nonprofit he disagrees with?” HA.


A poem by Mary Oliver:

This morning

the hawk

rose up

out of the meadow’s brose

and swung over the lake –

it settled

on the small black dome

of a dead pine,

alert as an admiral,

its profile

distinguished with sideburns

the color of smoke,

and I said: remember

this is not something

of the red fire, this is

heaven’s fistful

of death and destruction,

and the hawk hooked

one exquisite foot

onto a last twig

to look deeper

into the yellow reeds

along the edges of the water

and I said: remember

the tree, the cave,

the white lilly of resurrection,

and that’s when it simply lifted

its golden feet and floated

into the wind, belly-first,

and then it cruised along the lake –

all the time its eyes fastened

harder than love on some

unimportant rustling in the

yellow reeds — and then it

seemed to crouch high in the air, and then it

turned into a white blade, which fell.

From Owls and Other Fantasies

Collected commentary on Mary Oliver’s poetry

More poems